Panama Canal Did President Roosevelt 'Steal' the Canal or Obtain It Fairly? Library of Congress The issue

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Panama Canal

Did President Roosevelt 'Steal' the Canal or Obtain It Fairly?

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The issue: In 1903, after Colombia's senate rejected a treaty that would have allowed the U.S. to build a canal across the Colombian province of Panama, Panama staged a revolt and won its independence. One of Panama's first acts was to negotiate a canal treaty with the U.S. Did President Theodore Roosevelt steal the canal from Colombia by encouraging—or even helping to engineer—the revolution in order to win the rights to build a canal in Panama? Or were his actions in obtaining the Panama Canal just?

  • Arguments in support of Roosevelt's acquisition of the Panama Canal: The revolution in Panama could have disrupted transit across Panama, on which many Americans depended for travel between the east and west coasts of the U.S. Roosevelt was therefore right to send warships to Panama to prevent that from happening. He was also right to help the Panamanians in their fight against Colombia, which had long oppressed them. Furthermore, a canal across Panama was vital to U.S. interests, and any course of action was justified to build the canal.

  • Arguments opposing Roosevelt's acquisition of the Panama Canal The U.S. fostered the Panamanian revolution with the goal of negotiating a canal treaty with the new Panamanian government. That was proved by the fact that the U.S. sent warships to Panama even before the revolt officially began. The U.S.'s actions violated an 1846 treaty the U.S. had signed with Colombia, in which the U.S. pledged to help Colombia uphold its sovereignty over Panama, and amounted to a declaration of war against Colombia. As such, it meant the president had usurped the exclusive right of Congress to declare war.


In 1903, the U.S. began negotiating with the South American nation of Colombia to build a canal across Panama, then a Colombian province. As canal negotiations appeared to be on the brink of failure, Panamanians, who wanted to ensure the canal was not built elsewhere, declared their independence from Colombia. One of the new nation's first acts was to approve a treaty granting the U.S. the right to build a canal across Panama. However, while most Americans were in favor of the canal, a number of people criticized President Theodore Roosevelt (R, 1901-09) for the way the U.S. had obtained permission to build; critics accused him of encouraging, or even engineering, the Panamanian revolution to secure the canal.

Panama is an isthmus located in Central America, which connects North and South America and is sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. European nations had long sought a canal across Central America to facilitate trade with Latin America and Asia. Without a canal, merchants had to either sail around the southern tip of South America or disembark on one coast, cross Central America by land with their cargo and load it onto another ship on the other side. A canal linking the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea, and thereby with the Atlantic Ocean, would make travel and transport quicker and easier.

The U.S. Congress had also begun considering a canal, but deemed it too expensive to build. However, toward the end of the 19th century, Americans had become convinced of the necessity of a canal to shorten travel time between the U.S.'s east and west coasts as well as to the Pacific. There were several possible routes for a canal, but the two main contenders were Panama, the narrowest part of Central America, and Nicaragua, hundreds of miles closer to the U.S.

Congress decided to pursue the Panama route for the canal, and the U.S. and Colombia signed a canal treaty in early 1903. However, Colombia demanded more money at the last minute, thereby defeating the treaty and reviving the idea of Nicaragua as a viable location. Faced with the prospect of losing the canal to Nicaragua, as well as the jobs and revenue that it would bring, a group of Panamanians began considering declaring independence from Colombia. Rumors of revolution swirled in the summer of 1903.

Amid fears of a Panamanian revolt, Roosevelt sent several warships to the coast of Panama in late October. The president maintained that such action was necessary to protect U.S. transit across the isthmus, particularly along the railway across Panama, in case of conflict. The ships were ordered to keep both Colombians and Panamanians from causing trouble.

As rumored, in early November the Panamanians staged a revolution. The U.S. warships prevented Colombian troops from landing in Panama, and high mountains and dense jungles prevented the troops from reaching Panama by land. With no Colombian troops to put down the revolt, it was quick and bloodless, lasting only a day before Panama declared itself an independent state.

Two days later, the U.S. officially recognized Panama, and canal negotiations started within days. Two weeks after Panama declared its independence, the U.S. and Panama concluded a canal treaty, which Panama's congress approved in December. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in February 1904.

panama map

The Panama Canal connects the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.

U.S. Army

While many Americans had favored a canal in Panama, critics accused Roosevelt of stealing the canal from Colombia by supporting the Panamanian revolution. They claimed it was an example of Roosevelt's "Big Stick" policy, termed after a WestAfrican proverb Roosevelt liked to quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far." They claimed that the U.S. used the threat of military action in Panama to help the rebels and prevent Colombia from putting down the rebellion. Supporters, however, claimed that the U.S. had played no role in the revolt and was simply protecting its interests in sending warships to Panama. Did Roosevelt take the right course of action in Panama?

roosevelt cartoon

While many Americans supported the building of the Panama Canal, some saw Roosevelt's actions in support of the canal as pushing the boundaries of presidential power, as parodied in this 1904 cartoon.

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Roosevelt's supporters justified the president's actions on several grounds. Some claimed that a revolution in Panama could disrupt transit across the isthmus, on which many Americans traveling cross-country depended. Roosevelt was therefore right to send ships to prevent an uprising, they said. Other supporters went further, and argued that the moral course of action was to aid the Panamanians in their fight against Colombia, which had long oppressed Panama. Yet others claimed that building a canal across Panama was vital to U.S. interests, and that any course of action was justified to achieve that goal.

Critics, on the other hand, accused the U.S. of supporting the rebels, or perhaps even helping to plan the revolt, with the goal of negotiating a canal treaty with the new Panamanian government. That was proved by the fact that the U.S. sent warships to Panama even before the revolt officially began, critics maintained. The U.S.'s actions violated an 1846 treaty the U.S. had signed with Colombia, in which the U.S. pledged to help Colombia uphold its sovereignty , they said. In fact, critics asserted, the U.S. actions amounted to a declaration of war against Colombia, which further compounded Roosevelt's wrongdoings by violating Congress's exclusive right to declare war.

Early Visions of a Central American Canal

Nations had looked for a way to cross Central America since 1513, when Spanishexplorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the isthmus and became the first European explorer to reach the New World shores of the Pacific Ocean. Spain colonized Latin America in the early 16th century, and as Spanish trade in both Latin America and the Pacific began to increase so too did Spain's desire to build a canal across the isthmus.

In 1534, King Charles of Spain ordered a survey to determine whether a canal could be built across Central America. The surveyors reported that it would be impossible to dig a canal through the isthmus's tall mountains and dense forests. At the end of the century, Spain again sent a survey team to Central America, and once again the team declared that it would be impossible to build a canal.

Two centuries later, Spanish interest in building a canal was revived. However, Spain's dreams of building a canal ended as several revolutionary movements aimed at expelling Spain from Latin America emerged in the early 19th century. Colombia declared its independence from Spain in 1819, and Panama did so in 1821. After shaking off Spain, Panama chose to remain a Colombian province (known as a department); together the two formed what was known as New Granada.

The U.S. became interested in building a canal in Central America during the mid-1800s, as Americans began to move westward in increasing numbers, fulfilling their "manifest destiny" to extend the nation to the Pacific Ocean. Settlers traveling from the U.S.'s East Coast to its West Coast had three options: cross the U.S. by wagon train; travel by ship around the tip of South America; or sail to Panama's east coast, cross Panama on a railroad that U.S. businessmen had built and board a ship on the western side. [See Manifest Destiny]

Congress began to consider bills to finance a Central American canal, which would greatly reduce travel time, but such a venture was initially seen as too costly to be practical. However, recognizing the importance of travel across Panama, in 1846 the U.S. negotiated the Bidlack Treaty with Colombia guaranteeing the U.S. the right of transit across the isthmus. In return, the U.S. guaranteed Colombia's sovereignty over Panama, and agreed to help defend it against foreign intruders. [See Bidlack Treaty between the U.S. and Colombia (1846) (primary document)]

The U.S. Senate ratified the Bidlack Treaty in 1848, the year gold was discovered inCalifornia; in the ensuing "gold rush," unprecedented numbers of Americans crossed Panama en route to the West Coast. Sensing an ever-growing need for a means of crossing the isthmus of Panama by ship, and seeing that there would be enough passengers to make such an undertaking profitable, Congress began to consider a canal more seriously. [See California Gold Rush]

At the same time, Great Britain also began to consider building a canal across Nicaragua, a prospect that upset some Americans. In 1823, President James Monroe(Democratic Republican, 1817-25) had issued the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the Western Hemisphere was closed to European colonization. American opponents of a British canal in Central America argued that it would violate that doctrine; the U.S. must build the canal, they insisted. [See Monroe Doctrine]

To ensure that the U.S. would be involved in any canal venture, the U.S. negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Britain in 1850. The treaty provided for a joint U.S.-British canal in Central America, and agreed that any canal would not be fortified militarily. The canal would also be neutral, open to all nations, and neither the U.S. nor Britain would take exclusive control of the canal.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant (R, 1869-77) ordered surveys of possible canal sites across Central America and Mexico. The following decade, a commission recommended Nicaragua. Nicaragua was hundreds of miles closer to the U.S. than Panama, had lower mountain passes to dig through and had several lakes that would reduce the digging needed to build the canal. Nicaragua also had less swampy ground than Panama, which meant that it had fewer disease-carrying mosquitoes.

France, U.S. Seek to Build Panama Canal

As U.S. plans to build a Central American canal slowly progressed, France was negotiating with Colombia for the right to build a canal across Panama. Because Panama was narrower than Nicaragua, in theory it would be quicker and less expensive to build a canal across Panama. In 1878, a French company signed an agreement with Colombia to build a sea-level canal (in which a channel would be dug across Panama and would be filled with water from both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea). Under the agreement, the canal would be turned over to Colombia after 99 years.

The French company began work on the canal in 1880, but costs soon rose dramatically. Facing bankruptcy, the company dissolved in 1889 and abandoned the project. A new French company, called the New Panama Canal Company, took up the project in the late 1890s but as with the first company, it faced a shortfall of capital. Lacking other options, the owners of the New Panama Canal Company offered to sell its assets to the U.S.

landslide during building

Because of heavy rains in Panama, landslides were a constant threat during the construction of the Panama Canal.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. resolve to build an isthmian canal had strengthened with the Spanish-American War in 1898. At the outset of the war, the USS Oregon, stationed inSeattleWashington, was ordered to Cuba, which was fighting for its independence from Spain. Traveling around the tip of South America, the Oregon took more than two months to reach Cuba, driving home the need for a canal. Furthermore, in defeating Spain in the war, the U.S. gained the Pacific territories of Guam and thePhilippines, making quicker access to the Pacific more important. [See Spanish-American War]

To ensure that the canal would be owned only by the U.S., in 1901 the U.S. negotiated with Britain to revoke the Clayton-Bulwer treaty. Britain, which was fighting the Boer War in South Africa and did not have extra resources to divert for building a canal, agreed to the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty revoking the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The U.S. Senate ratified Hay-Pauncefote in December of that year.

With plans to build a canal in place, the question became where to build it. Commissions in 1895 and 1899 had recommended that the canal be built in Nicaragua. Another survey was commissioned in December 1901 to compare routes through Panama and Nicaragua. The survey determined that it would cost roughly $190 million to build a canal through Nicaragua, compared with $253 million for a canal through Panama, including $190 million to purchase all properties and rights from the New Panama Canal Company. Therefore, the commission concluded, the Nicaragua route was the "most practicable and feasible."

Acting on an initial report by the commission, on January 8, 1902, the House passed the Hepburn Bill authorizing the government to build a canal in Nicaragua for $180 million. However, after the commission's report was released, the New Panama Canal Company reduced the asking price for its assets to $40 million. Upon hearing of that offer, the canal commission on January 20 submitted a second report recommending that the canal be built in Panama. In light of the second recommendation by the commission, accompanied by safety concerns after Nicaragua's Momotombo volcano became active, Senator John Spooner (R, Wisconsin) proposed an amendment to the Hepburn Bill that would locate the canal in Panama.

Spooner's amendment authorized the president to purchase the rights and properties of the New Panama Canal Company for $40 million and to negotiate with Colombia for the rights to build a canal in Panama. The bill also declared that if the U.S. could not reach an agreement with Colombia within a "reasonable time" then it would go ahead with the Nicaraguan route. The Senate passed the so-called Spooner Act, 67-6, on June 19, 1902, and the House approved it, 260-8, on June 25. Roosevelt signed the bill two days later.

After the Spooner bill was passed, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Tomás Herrán, Colombia's chargé d'affaires in Washington, D.C., began to negotiate a canal treaty. On March 17, 1903, the Senate ratified the so-called Hay-Herran Treaty, which granted the U.S. the rights to a six-mile-wide strip of land across Panama with a 100-year lease. The U.S. would maintain administrative control over the canal zone—for instance, keeping law and order—but Colombia would maintain sovereignty over the zone. In return, the U.S. would pay Colombia $10 million in gold and another $250,000 annually over the next nine years. [See Hay-Herran Treaty (1903) (primary document)]

The Colombian Congress, many of whose members had expressed opposition to the treaty, began considering the treaty in June. But in the meantime, the Colombian government requested that the treaty be amended so that the canal would end up costing the U.S. an additional $25 million. Hay advised Colombia that the Senate would never agree to such additional costs, and the treaty was left as it was.

On August 12, the Colombian Senate unanimously rejected the Hay-Herran Treaty. Discussing the prospects of a canal in Panama, Roosevelt wrote to Hay on September 15, "At present I feel that there are two alternatives. First, to take up Nicaragua; second, in some shape or way to interfere when it becomes necessary so as to secure the Panama route without further dealing with the foolish and homicidal corruptionists in Bogota [Colombia's capital]. I am not inclined to have any further dealings whatever with those Bogota people."

Revolution in Panama Brings Canal for the U.S.

Throughout the summer of 1903 there was speculation that Panama would declare its independence from Colombia if a canal treaty were not worked out. Panama had staged several bids for independence since 1886, when Colombia deprived Panama of the "absolute and unqualified sovereignty" it had originally guaranteed Panama under the terms of their union. Colombia had put down all such movements, often with the help of the U.S.

In October of that year, two army officers sent to investigate the situation in Panama reported to Roosevelt that weapons and ammunition were being smuggled into Panama, and that revolution was imminent. Citing the 1846 treaty, Roosevelt in late October sent three U.S. warships to Panama and a fourth to Cuba. Their instructions were to "maintain free and uninterrupted transit" across Panama, particularly protecting the railroad, and to "prevent landing of any armed force, either government or insurgent, at any point within 50 miles of Panama."

As predicted, on November 3 a group of Panamanians staged a revolt and the following day declared that Panama was independent. Because the U.S. warships had prevented Colombian troops from landing in Panama, the revolution occurred without any bloodshed. [See Panama's Declaration of Independence (Excerpt) (primary document)]

On November 6, Colombia's government offered to ratify the canal treaty it had previously rejected in return for U.S. support in putting down the rebellion. The U.S. spurned Colombia's offer and formally recognized Panama's independence the same day. Secretary of State Hay immediately began negotiations for a canal treaty withPhilippe Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer for the New Panama Canal Company who had been named Panama's minister to the U.S.

The resulting Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was completed on November 18, and Panama's congress ratified it on December 2. The terms were more favorable to the U.S. than those of the canal treaty that had been negotiated with Colombia. Panama's treaty granted the U.S. a 10-mile-wide canal zone, did not set a time limit on U.S. ownership and essentially gave the U.S. complete jurisdiction over the canal zone. In return, the U.S. would give Panama $10 million, with an additional $250,000 each year (starting in 1913), and also agreed to help maintain Panama's independence. [SeeHay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903) (primary document)]

Recognizing the favorable terms of the treaty with Panama, Hay advised the Senate to quickly ratify it without attempting to make any changes to it. Hay wrote to Spooner:

As it stands now as soon as the Senate votes we shall have a treaty in the main very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the United States, and we must confess, with what face we can muster, not so advantageous to Panama. If we amend the treaty and send it back there some time next month, the period of enthusiastic unanimity, which...comes only once in the life of a revolution, will have passed away, and they will have entered on the new field of politics and dispute. You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object.

The Senate heeded Hay's advice. On February 23, 1904, it ratified the treaty in a 66-14 vote, without making any major changes to it. Work on the canal officially began on May 4. [See Construction of the Panama Canal (sidebar)]

gatun lock construction

Construction on the Gatun lock along the Panama Canal.

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While most Americans agreed that a canal was necessary, the way in which the U.S. acquired it sparked heated controversy. Roosevelt was immediately accused of conspiring with the revolutionaries in Panama and of supporting the revolt in order to secure the canal in Panama. Had Roosevelt overstepped his bounds, perhaps even committed unconstitutional acts, in acquiring the rights to build the canal in Panama? Or did he simply act in the best interests of both Panama and the U.S.?

The Case in Support of Roosevelt's Acquisition of the Panama Canal

Roosevelt and his supporters claimed that the government had no prior intent to engineer or aid a rebellion in Panama, and that no government official had played a role in it. As proof, Roosevelt pointed to a letter he had written to Albert Shaw, editor of The Review of Reviews, on October 10, well before the revolt occurred. In the letter, Roosevelt insisted that he had no intention of intervening in Panama. He wrote:

I cast aside the proposition made at this time to foment the secession of Panama. Whatever other governments can do, the United States can not go into the securing by such underhand means, the cession. Privately, I freely say to you that I should be delighted if Panama were an independent State, or if it made itself so at this moment; but for me to say so publicly would amount to an instigation of a revolt, and therefore I can not say it.

However, supporters said, once the Panamanians chose to rebel, the U.S. followed the correct course in sending warships to Panama, to protect both Panama's interests and those of the U.S. The Panamanians deserved their independence from their Colombian oppressors, Roosevelt's supporters contended, and it would have been immoral to help Columbia crush the rebellion or allow bloodshed to occur.

Furthermore, since the canal was to be built on Panamanian land, it should have been up to Panama all along—not up to Colombia—to negotiate the treaty, supporters insisted. Therefore, they said, the U.S. did not "steal" anything from Colombia but simply purchased the rights to the land from its rightful owners. In an address on February 22, 1904, former Secretary of War Elihu Root declared:

The people of Panama were the real owners of the canal route; it was because their fathers dwelt in the land, because they won their independence from Spain, because they organized a civil society there, that it was not to be treated as one of the waste places of the earth. They owned that part of the earth's surface just as much as the State of New York owns the Erie Canal.... The question for the United States was: Shall we take this treaty from the true owner or shall we take it from the faithless trustee, and for that purpose a third time put back the yoke of foreign domination upon the neck of Panama, by the request of that Government which has tried to play toward us the part of the highwayman?

However, not only Panama's interests were at stake; U.S. interests were too, supporters said. They insisted that the situation merited sending warships to the area to make sure that any conflict did not shut down transit across Panama. "We had to decide on the instant whether we would take possession of the ends of the railroad and keep the traffic clear, or whether we would stand back and let those gentlemen cut each other's throats for an indefinite time, and destroy whatever remnant of our property and interests we had there," Hay explained in a letter to historian James Ford Rhodes on December 8, 1903. He continued, "I had no hesitation as to the proper course to take, and have had no doubt of the propriety of it since."

tugboat navigating gatun locks

On September 26, 1913, the steamboat Gatun successfully tests the locks located at Gatun, on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.

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In justifying U.S. action in Panama during a special message to Congress on January 4, 1904, Roosevelt insisted that there was nothing new about sending the ships to Panama. "These orders were delivered in pursuance of the policy on which our Government had repeatedly acted. This policy was exhibited...under somewhat similar circumstances last year, and the year before, and the year before that," he stated. [See President Roosevelt's Special Message to Congress (1904) (primary document)]

Others took the position that the question of whether or not Roosevelt had aided in the Panamanian rebellion was not important. The objective of building the canal across Panama was so vital in terms of commerce and expansion in the Pacific that it justified any means of obtaining it, they said. Discussing his constituents' desire for a canalAlabama Representative William Richardson (D) declared, "Down our way we are so very anxious to get the canal that we would even be disposed to accept stolen property."

Supporters of Roosevelt's actions denied that U.S. actions violated the 1846 treaty with Colombia. The treaty guaranteed free transit across Panama, which was what the U.S. was ensuring, they said. There was also no imperative for the U.S. to come to Colombia's defense, they added. "There was no provision of our treaty with Colombia which required us to answer to her call, for our guaranty of her sovereignty in that treaty relates solely to foreign aggression. There was no rule of international law which required us to recognize the wrongs of Panama or the justice of her cause, for international law does not concern itself with the internal affairs of states," Root stated.

The Case Against Roosevelt's Acquisition of the Panama Canal

Critics accused the administration of actively supporting the Panamanian revolt in order to seize the canal from Colombia after Colombia appeared unwilling to grant the U.S. the right to build it. Some even accused the U.S. of playing a role in planning the revolution. In doing so, they said, the U.S. was guilty of running roughshod over Colombia's rights, beginning what Senator Edward Carmack (D, Tennessee) described as a "systematic policy of aggression toward the Central and South American states."

The fact that the U.S. had sent ships to Panama even before the revolt began proved that the U.S. had played a role in it, administration critics said. They noted that shortly before Roosevelt decided to send ships to Panama, Panamanians had sought U.S. support for a potential revolution. The New York Times explained in an editorial on January 5, 1904:

In view of the fact that these orders [to send battleships to Panama] preceded the outbreak by two weeks, and that six weeks before these orders were issued the revolutionary schemers in Panama had, in letters to correspondents in this city, appealed for some assurance from the United States that the revolution when declared would be aided and protected by our Government, it may be left to a candid world to determine whether the President is not deluding himself when he declares that "no one connected with this Government had any part in preparing, inciting or encouraging the late revolution."... The encouragement of the revolutionists was a necessary consequence of the President's orders.

Critics further charged that the government's action on behalf of Panama violated the 1846 treaty with Colombia. The Parker Constitution Club of New York pointed out that under Article I of the treaty, "there shall be a perfect, firm, and inviolable peace and sincere friendship between the United States of American and the Republic of New Granada, in all the extent of their possessions and territories."

The U.S. had guaranteed to uphold Colombia's sovereignty, the club noted, but in preventing Colombian troops from landing in Panama, Roosevelt actually prevented Colombia from asserting its sovereignty. "In issuing orders that Colombia should not be allowed to land troops on her own territory he acted arbitrarily and autocratically, his course also leading to a lamentable violation of international justice and to a breach of our National honor," the Parker Constitution Club declared. In fact, such action amounted to a declaration of war against Colombia, critics insisted. Therefore, they said, Roosevelt's actions were unconstitutional, since only Congress could declare war.

senator patterson

Senator Thomas Patterson accused President Theodore Roosevelt of "stealing" the Panama Canal from Colombia.

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Critics argued that Roosevelt's actions in Panama also violated the Spooner Act, whereby the U.S. was obliged to build a canal in Nicaragua if the government could not reach an accord with Colombia in a timely manner. Roosevelt either should have taken more time to negotiate with Colombia, which had shown willingness to renegotiate a canal treaty, or should have begun negotiations with Nicaragua, they insisted.

Most critics of Roosevelt recognized the need for a canal. They just disapproved of the way the U.S. had gone about securing the Panama Canal, which Senator Thomas Patterson (D, Colorado) concluded "was stolen in the most bare-faced manner from Colombia." The only honorable course, critics insisted, was to abandon the Panama project. The New York Times elaborated in a November 6, 1904, editorial: [See President Roosevelt's Actions in the Panama: 'A National Disgrace' (primary document)]

We ought to build the canal, we must control it. But the right to build and the authority to control will be acquired at a cost far too great to be borne if we get it in this way. Our only safety, our one honorable course, is to abandon the Panama project at once in order that with clean hands, and freed from the suspicion of sordid and interested motives, we may make good our treaty guarantee of the neutrality of Isthmian transit.

U.S. Returns the Canal to Panama

Nearly four centuries after Spain first envisioned building a canal across Central America, the U.S. completed the Panama Canal. It officially opened on August 15, 1914. The effort took 10 years at a cost of nearly $400 million and employed some 70,000 workers, 5,000 of whom were American. Roughly 5,600 people died from disease and accidents while building the canal; 25,000 Frenchmen had died during the earlier French effort, mostly from mosquito-borne diseases, like yellow fever and malaria; mosquito-control measures, however, were in place by the time the U.S. canal was built.

Despite widespread support for the canal, claims that the U.S. had wronged Colombia in obtaining the canal persisted. Critics accused the U.S. of encouraging the Panamanian revolt after Colombia appeared unwilling to allow the U.S. to build a canal. Defenders countered that the government had nothing to do with the revolt, and had simply negotiated for rights to build the canal with its rightful owner—Panama.

In an effort to improve relations with Colombia, in 1914 the administration of Woodrow Wilson (D, 1913-21) drew up a treaty that would give Colombia $25 million in compensation for the loss of Panama and offer "sincere regret" for the strain the incident had placed on U.S.-Colombian relations. Congress rejected the treaty, which former President Roosevelt strongly opposed. However, on April 21, 1921, the Senate approved a treaty that would pay $25 million to Colombia but would not issue any expressions of regret. After the treaty was approved, Colombia-U.S. relations began to improve.

uss arizona in locks

The USS Arizona passes through the locks along the Panama Canal in 1921.

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The canal also resulted in strained relations with Panama. Many Panamanians resented the treaty, and in particular claimed that Panama had given up too much in granting the U.S. sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Anti-American sentiment grew, and in 1964 a riot broke out after American students at Balboa High School, located in the Canal Zone, raised an American flag over the school but refused to fly a Panamanian flag next to it. Thousands of people rioted for three days, and Panama briefly severed ties with the U.S. as a result of the incident.

In light of the increasing tension, the U.S. government opened negotiations for a new canal treaty that would eventually give control of the canal to Panama. On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter (D, 1977-81) and Panama's leader, General Omar Torrijos Herrera, signed a treaty under which the U.S. would hand over the canal to Panama by December 31, 1999. They also signed a treaty pledging to maintain the canal's neutrality. The handover occurred as scheduled on December 31, 1999. [SeeAmericans Hand over the Panama Canal (sidebar)Panama Canal Treaty (1977) (primary document)]

In his autobiography, Roosevelt claimed that the canal was "by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President." He addressed criticism of his actions in Panama in a speech on March 23, 1911, at the University of California, Berkeley. "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me," he stated. A century later, Roosevelt and his actions in Panama are still being debated.


Bishop, Joseph. Theodore Roosevelt and His Time Shown in His Own Letters. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1920.

"The Canal Debate Begins." Time, October 10, 1977.,9171,915565,00.html?iid=chix-sphere (accessed August 31, 2008).

Dolan, Edward. Panama and the United States: Their Canal, Their Stormy Years. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Dutemple, Lesley. The Panama Canal. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications, 2003.

Hogan, J. Michael. The Panama Canal in American Politics: Domestic Advocacy and the Evolution of Policy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

"Making Dirt Fly on Panama Canal." New York Times, August 24, 1908, 2.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

"A National Disgrace." New York Times, November 6, 1903, 8.

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Parker, Matthew. Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time—The Building of the Panama Canal. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

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